Bolivia, Salt Flats and Death Roads

Crossing over from Peru to Bolivia was confronting to say the least. While border crossings are usually a challenging affair, this crossing had the added element of a desolate town. This town looked like something from a USA nuclear testing zone. You know the ones from the 1950’s that where created to determine the damage range to a small community. In saying that, a small community of people lived here, banking on the constant flow of tourists that travelled through. The cold winds that sweep through from the arid plains that surround this zone just add to the ghostliness of the streets. This unpleasant welcome to Bolivia is just a symptom of the perpetual oppression of the Bolivian masses by a few wealthy elite, who during the days of colonialism gained economic and political power, in combination with long standing political instability and diversion of resources globally

Eitherway, I made it to Bolivia. The country rich in natural resources and equally poverty stricken population. A country where the absence of Public Liability Insurance in combination with the dramatic landscapes, enable some of the most popular adrenaline packed adventures.

With a long history of Spanish rule, gaining independence in 1825, the complex history of Bolivia and the adrenaline adventures were my reasons for visiting.

Arriving in La Paz I was taken aback with the size of the city. Residing in a creator that was believed to have been created by a rouge meteorite, this city resembles a rabbit warren of concrete residence. The chaos of the South America traffic continued here, with the added challenge of narrow streets and steep hills. Traffic here, and peoples understanding of how drive safely, are so bad that the government has enlisted the support of a people dressed in animal costumes as a promotional campaign. They are sporadically dotted around the country, acting as a mentor for people crossing the road, or parking a car, or even just driving through traffic lights. It is kind of comical to watch, but I am glad that it exists. Looking at the crazed behaviour of the drivers and pedestrians, I can’t imagine what it was like before they were in place.

Taking sanctuary in Café del Mondo, a hot spot café run my a Swedish lady who has moved to Bolivia, I fuelled up on the delicious menu for my impending adventure day. La Paz is an up and coming place for delicious cuisine. Not quite ready to challenge the likes of Buenos Aires or Lima, La Paz is responding to the demands of the tourist thoroughfare and providing a plethora of cuisines that will leave your belly full and a smile on your face.

Tired from a long day of travel, I rested my weary head on my pillow and hoped my Mum did not figure out what adventure I had planned for the morning….Death Road.

Death Road, or Comino de la Muertes, is one of a number of World famous attractions in Bolivia. Named this way due to the large volume of prisoners that died in the building of the road, as well as the high proportion of people who have lost their lives while using the road. At times, as many as 300 people a year. In saying this, tourist, like me, flock to Death Road to test out their mountain biking skills and their courage, and hope that destiny will provide them with a safe journey to the bottom. Was I scared? Yes. I am not invincible. And I do value my life. Was I panicking slightly as we ascended to the 4650m starting point? Yes, particularly when I saw that it was snowing. Yes. You heard me. Snowing! To add to the danger, I was going to be mountain biking down the world’s most dangerous road on an icy surface. Ce La Vie! Throw caution to the wind and let’s get this show on the road. After a brief ritual where we give thanks to Pachamama (aka. the deity of Mother Nature), we lined up ready to go.

Rugged up in the gear provided by Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, I commenced my ride. Taking it slowly to begin with, to get used to the bike, I took in the scenery. Beautiful snow-capped mountain tops as far as the eye could see. A misty haze where the sky couldn’t decide if it wanted to snow some more or just be weighed down by the bulk of the clouds. Mirror glazed lakes that reflected the world above. It was quite magical.

Eventually, we reached the beginning of the original Death Road, which was the complete opposite of the comfortable tarmacked surface I had just been enjoying. The road narrowed, the safety railing disappeared, the surface changed to a rubble and slip. Let the adventure begin. Fortunately the bikes that Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking were designed to endure most of the shock, because I can tell you, I pushed this ride to the limits. The wind in my hair, the flicker of rain on my cheeks, the skid of the tyre as I rounded a bend and the weightless sensation you get when you make a jump. I loved it all. For 60 km, at a decline of 3650m, I experience pure fun. Safely arriving at the bottom, I thanked Patchamama for my safe arrival and relaxed on my ride back to La Paz.

The rest of my time here was spent lazily wandering the streets, finding quirky museums, hidden markets, and delicious food. La Paz sure knew how to put on a show, but alas, my stay here was only a brief one as there was much to see.

After a full bus day, I arrived in Uyuni. Pronounced Why-Uni, there is no question as to why people travel here from all of the world. Uyuni is home to the World’s largest Salt Flats, Salar de Uyuni. Formed by the evaporation of a volcanic lake some thousand years ago, the Salt Flats present a surface of bright white salt for locals to manufacture and a hot spot optical illusion for photographers to play with. Yes, purchasing a series of toys and miniature dinosaurs, our guide ferried us out into the 11,000 sq km salt flats. Braving the blustery and icy winds, my new friends and I captured some comical pictures to look back on.

We soon left our picture post and were off to the Incahuasi, or Fish Island, which surprising doesn’t have any fish on it, but is home to a thriving cactus population that are 500 plus years old. Standing next to these gargantuan totems, I felt small. They felt so out of place in this environment. An island packed with cactus in amongst the stark white of the salt flats. It was like an oasis in the dessert, accept this one hurts if you touch it….a lot.

We stayed here until the day turned to night and watched the sun dip below the horizon, marking the end of this adventure but the beginning of the journey to Potosi.

Potosi is a mining town not like many others. Potosi was home to one of the biggest Silver mines in the world. It was said that this mine funded the Spanish economy throughout its rule. There was so much silver in these mountains that a bridge could be made that connected Bolivia to Spain. Sadly, an equivalent bridge could be built with the bones of the slaves that were used by the Spanish in the mining for this Silver. You see, this mine was already active when the Spanish conquered Bolivia. In fact the Incas that governed the site, before the Spanish, were forced to mine in horrendous conditions. When the Spanish had exhausted the local population, they then transported slaves from other parts of the globe to continue bleeding the mine.

When the silver ran dry, the Spanish abandoned the city and left the town desolate. But the Bolivian people would not be broken by this. They found other minerals within the mine to trade. These minerals enabled the city to continue to thrive.

Nowdays, the mine has been declared closed. It is actually illegal to mine there today. In saying that, this practice still continues. Cooperatives exist that allow a nearly 14,000 population of miners to continue to work and trade their wares. I was lucky enough to go on a tour through the rabbit warren of the mine and see the conditions in which these men, women and sadly, children, exist on a daily basis. It was hard to watch. The community know the dangers associated with working in this environment, but the payoff is too good. In a town where there are not many opportunities to escape the clutches of poverty, mining is the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Bolivia was culturally confronting to me. The real nature of poverty in this country is not masked or diluted in any way. But it is a country with a lot of potential for growth and a desire to catch up with the rest of the world. I suspect that returning here in 10 years would show a dramatically different socioeconomic landscape to what I have witnessed in this brief visit.

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